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Building Condos or Community?

Frankfort debates best path to family-friendly prosperity

March 17, 2005 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Jim Dulzo

Friends of Betsie Bay members Fred Stransky (left), Saskia van Wolferen, and Jim Buzzell say building affordable housing instead of vacation condos along the shoreline behind them would be better for the year-round economy.

FRANKFORT — After a four-year break, a controversial proposal to build 40 condominiums on and near the shores of this fishing and tourist town is up for formal review by the city planning commission in mid-April. News of the renewed push for developing the land has re-ignited a lively conversation here about what the community wants to be and where it’s actually headed.

One voice in the exchange belongs to a Detroit-area developer and his associate, seeking for the seventh time since 1997 to win rezoning approval to build vacation condos and boat slips on the city’s east shoreline. Another, sharply different voice belongs to a citizens group that says it wants to protect community character and uphold the town’s master plan, which outlines the community’s vision for a prosperous, family-friendly future and some of the elements needed to achieve it.

Other residents, city officials, and business owners wonder aloud about the best way to build the community most people here say they want: One that is more than a summer tourist spot. Some say affordable, single-family housing — not condominiums — will attract the year-round residents, sustained growth, and good jobs that the area now needs. Others say that establishing the high-paying jobs should come first, to boost the economy and allow workers to afford a broader range of housing in an area already well endowed with second homes and high property values.

“We have tourism and not many jobs, so how can we grow and thrive?” asks Saskia van Wolferen, a steadfast opponent of the condo proposal and a mother of two children who, until recently, commuted 40 miles to a job in Traverse City. “We’re not answering the underlying question of what kind of community we want to be. Do we want to be only a tourist community? Do we want to provide the housing for a greater area and develop more intensely? We need to have this broader discussion.”

Those questions echo across the entire Grand Traverse region, where most counties saw population growth of at least 20 percent between 1990 and 2000. Benzie County, home to Frankfort, grew a startling 31 percent in the 1990s, the state’s second-fastest clip. But with newcomers mostly spreading themselves thinly across the countryside, Frankfort’s permanent population of approximately 1,500 is smaller than it was in 1910. Faced with booming rural growth and slow-growing towns, residents throughout the region wonder how best to protect the tourist-friendly scenery from the rapid wave of sprawling development; generate more good-paying, year-round jobs; and revitalize fading village and town centers.

Big Deal for a Small Town
One reason the Fisherman’s Landing condominium proposal that Ms. van Wolferen and many of her neighbors oppose has stirred so much debate is that the project would require the city to rezone some of its last undeveloped land along Betsie Bay. Currently the parcel, straddling M-22 between Frankfort and neighboring Elberta, is zoned R-1, for “stable single-family neighborhoods within the city,” according to Frankfort’s 1999 ordinance. By right, Fisherman’s Landing developer Marshall Tobin, of West Bloomfield, can already erect up to 18 homes there, mostly on a steep hill overlooking Lake Michigan’s Betsie Bay, with up to three units near the water’s edge.

But Mr. Tobin wants both R-2 zoning, which allows higher density, and a zoning tool called Planned Unit Development, for even more density and layout flexibility. That would yield 40 condos in five two-story buildings, with detached garages, 70 additional parking spaces, and 16 boat slips at the end of a boardwalk through a wetland. State and federal environmental agencies would have to approve the work along the water’s edge.

Another concern many residents and officials is that the project would squeeze two buildings containing 16 condos in between the bay and the highway, requiring an exemption from setback requirements. Meanwhile, Ms. van Wolferen and her Friends of Betsie Bay citizens group oppose the project because they say it would not provide affordable family housing and would set a bad precedent for intense development of the bay’s shoreline.

Mr. Tobin, however, who in 2000 unsuccessfully sued the city to get the property zoned for commercial development, does not see a problem.

“I’m not sure what precedent is being set that would be offensive,” said Mr. Tobin, in a telephone interview. “We are concerned about preserving the appearance of the shoreline, but we certainly can’t maintain a ‘vacant experience,’ which would be the preference of many of our neighbors there.”

Mr. Tobin said he doesn’t know whether he could make an acceptable profit by building only single-family homes because it “would do more damage than good” to have a separate lot and driveway for each home instead of his clustered design. He said he ruled out mixing condos and single-family houses because he needs higher-priced waterside condos to offset the lower-priced units on the hill. Mr. Tobin plans to sell the condos for $105,000-$150,000 each, moderate prices in the region’s hot housing market, but still beyond the reach of Benzie County’s many low-wage workers.

Pretty Fabulous
To understand why a single condo project that might attract little notice elsewhere roils Frankfort’s normally placid waters requires some familiarity with the city. Approaching it on rolling, two-lane M-115, a visitor catches a tantalizing glimpse of Lake Michigan and then motors past major employer Graceland Fruit, the high school, the grocery store, and an art center before reaching the city’s only traffic signal, which blinks. Ahead lies the beach; one block left is the 140-year-old bayside downtown.

Neatly platted neighborhoods abound, complete with mature maple trees, sidewalks, and houses that grow larger and more ornate toward the water. A boat launch, marinas, a bait shop, and charter fishing businesses ring the bay, along with a U.S. Coast Guard station, a major condo development, a broad beach and bluffs, a long pier, and a working lighthouse.

In short, Frankfort is pretty fabulous. Its roots are in shipping, logging, and tourism, but the city has moved beyond its proud past to new initiatives and a modern feel. A hiking and bicycling trail passes where trains used to usher in tourists; city hall is being rebuilt with a smart new design on the old site. Workers are repairing cracked sidewalks, the sewer system, and the high school, while the city targets polluted industrial sites on the bay for cleanup. Owners and local builders are updating the town’s housing stock.

But, with all of this positive activity, the population continues to turn over more than it increases. Year-round housing grew only 3 percent in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Census, while seasonal housing grew by about 20 percent. School enrollment declined about 8 percent.

A Master Plan’s Meaning
Would condos add year-round residents and school kids? Mr. Tobin’s development application says the condos would likely be second homes; it also describes the benefits of non-homestead housing, which is taxed at a higher rate than primary residences and demands less of the roads, sewers, and schools because people mostly don’t live there.

The city’s master plan, however, targets the general area where the condos are proposed for affordable housing. So, do the condos fit the master plan or do they deserve rejection? The answer is both legal and subjective.

A letter to the city from Jim Olson, the attorney for the Friends of Betsie Bay, asserts that the condos would change the “essential character” of the area, in violation of the master plan, and that the waterfront parcel is too small under current zoning to be considered for intense, clustered housing. Mr. Tobin did not reply to a follow-up request by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service for comment on those assertions.

Joseph Hommel, a long-serving member and currently acting chair of the Frankfort Planning Commission, objected to past plans for the condos as “too many and too small.”

“They amounted to hotel rooms in size and design and weren’t affordable,” Mr. Hommel said in an interview. But he is withholding final judgment on the most recent proposal until the public hearing, which is scheduled for April 13. A condominium resident himself, Mr. Hommel said that Mr. Tobin’s project might fit into the surrounding area, which is already a potpourri that includes single-family homes, a marina, a sewage treatment plant, a motel, and a small farm. He noted that Elberta is planning many condominiums along its bay front.

A Broader, More Pressing Problem
Jason Gollan, another commission member, called the condo proposal “aggressive” but said he doesn’t think it inherently violates the master plan. He is interested in attracting full-time residents, and wants to keep the shore in a natural state and open to the public. But he’s unconvinced that swapping the condos for affordable housing would necessarily deliver those results. He said the problem is far broader.

“I think there’s a huge challenge in Benzie County with the high real estate values here and the difficulty in making a living,” said Mr. Gollan, who bought Frankfort’s downtown bakery with his wife Linda in 2002. “The career-level jobs here are nearly non-existent. Most people work for one of just a few big employers or are the working poor.”

Mr. Gollan suggests that the city work with small businesses to foster their growth and also actively recruit new businesses.

“I think the easiest thing to market is second homes,” he added. “And certainly increasing the tax base is a good thing. But what I keep bringing up is, ‘What do we do as a city to be a proactive force in economic development and good-paying jobs?’ Right now we’re pretty reactive in responding to development proposals.”

Frankfort, and Benzie County as a whole, must soon start tackling the tough questions about how to spur quality growth, according to Mark Wyckoff, a planning consultant hired to guide a revision of the county’s master plan. In January, Mr. Wyckoff delivered a sober warning to a crowd of residents about where the county and its communities are headed.

“With fast growth at a low density and the resulting land fragmentation, Benzie County is nearing the threshold of change from a north woods landscape to a suburban landscape in some places,” said Mr. Wyckoff, who has decades of experience working with communities across Michigan. “Without action, current trends will destroy the character and quality of life here.”

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst at the Michigan Land Use Institute, is using his writing and planning skills to help make Michigan a model of Smart Growth. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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